Aug. 29, 2012
DAVIS, Calif. -
Graduating five outstanding seniors stands as both a tough challenge and an outstanding opportunity for Steve Doten, who enters his 12th year as head coach for the 13th-ranked UC Davis men's water polo team.
Coming off a season in which the Aggies tied a school record with 22 wins, achieved a top-10 ranking for three weeks, and advanced to the Western Water Polo Association title game for the second straight year, Doten has reasons for both his concerns and his optimism.
On the one hand, UC Davis bid farewell to one of its strongest senior classes in history. Ryan Hagens was a team captain and a gifted all-around player. Luke Collins enjoyed a breakout season for his swan song, posting career highs of 32 goals and 29 assists. Walter Eggert (24 goals, 26 assists) ranks as one of the fastest and most athletic Aggies in program history. And of course, the team had two senior All-Americans: center Aaron Salit, who ranked second in the conference with 83 goals; and goalkeeper Kevin Peat, who set a school record of 335 saves.
"That was a talented group of guys, and it showed last season in terms of being really successful," said Doten. "An All-American in the cage and an All-American at center - how do you replace that? So we're moving guys around and defining new roles. That's the process we're in."
Aiding that process is Doten's largest senior class, seven strong and highly diverse. UC Davis men's water polo's next graduating class has two centers in Hank Dickey and Jared Clapham. A pair of utilities in Matt Vowell and Kevin Meisel. The class has three attackers: Anders MacCarthy, Russell Hampton and two-time All-WWPA honoree Colin Hicks. Two of the seven - Vowell and Hampton - are left-handed. Collectively, this group amassed 2,607 minutes of playing time last season, led by Hicks' 607. They accounted for 119 goals and 103 assists, with Hampton (35) and Hicks (32) pacing the class.
That experience, says Doten, is invaluable: "This game is a physically demanding game. Having guys who have played collegiate water polo for two or three years is a big asset."
Additionally, junior utility Bernie Rogers, junior defender Stuart Dooley, sophomore attacker Trevor Allen and sophomore utility Chris Richardson each averaged double-figured minutes of playing time in 2011. Richardson garnered WWPA All-Freshman honors for scoring 42 goals, second only behind Salit on the Aggie roster.
However, the one area that poses the largest question mark is directly in front of the cage. Peat had started for four straight years and had played all but two quarters during the entirety of the 2011 season. Now he joins Doten on the deck as a volunteer assistant coach.
The goalkeeper, the veteran coach acknowledges, is the one area where experience helps the most but a lack of experience can hurt the most. Besides the obvious task of stopping shots, a goalkeeper serves as coach in the water, running the defense and positioning the players in front of him. Glance at program history and you'll see the two 22-win seasons came when the Aggies had a senior All-American in the cage - Peat in 2010 and Mike McGee in 2007.
"The hardest, toughest job was the one Kevin Peat had," said Doten. "Now we have to find who that next person will be. That's our biggest challenge. It will be a new leader on defense and a new voice."
The primary candidates at this spot are junior Tony Dito, one of Peat's backups last season; and redshirt freshman Robert Clemons. Two additional goalies in the program are first-year Aggies Philip Bates and Zach Tudhope, although Doten has traditionally redshirted true freshmen to save the year of eligibility as they develop in the program. Both Dito and Clemons own impressive backgrounds. Dito starred for Central Coast Section champ Saint Francis and for Stanford WPC. Clemons hails from North Coast Section champion Acalanes and Lamorinda WPC, the latter of which delivered Peat five years ago.
"It will be a healthy competition," said Doten. "The goalies are a tight group and they work well together. They'll make each other better."
UC Davis will test its personnel in perhaps the best manner possible for this year's team. As they did for the past three years, the Aggies will travel to Berkeley for the first weekend of competition. However, this year's opening weekend will consist of exhibition games at the Golden Bear Invitational, which features a field of Cal, Santa Clara, Pacific and Long Beach City College. In other words, Doten's crew will face high-quality competition, only without the specter of wins and losses looming over them.
For Coach Doten, a renewed emphasis on teamwork will be at the forefront throughout the season. The departure of Salit opens the door for multiple players to take on the scoring load. The lack of a veteran goalie requires the defensive unit to coalesce. Furthermore, the new men's rules - a smaller course and a shorter shot clock - will capitalize on a team's ability to play together.
"What we have is an outstanding group of seven seniors who are fantastic kids," says Doten. "They're a tight group that understands the team-oriented philosophy of the program."
After this weekend's Golden Bear Invite, UC Davis plays its first official game on Friday, September 7 at No. 6 UC Irvine. The Aggies then compete in the Inland Empire Classic (Sept. 8-9) and the NorCal Invitational (Sept. 15-16) before a home weekend that includes Cal Baptist and the Aggie Shootout.
The 2012 slate also features one of the toughest home schedules in recent memory: 2011 NCAA runner-up UCLA on Oct. 7, Pepperdine on Oct. 19, WWPA preaseason favorite Loyola Marymount on Oct. 26, defending WWPA champion UC San Diego on Nov. 1 and Stanford on Nov. 3.
"We have to go through the process and start at the beginning," Doten said. "My hat is off to these guys. They are working hard. They knew to arrive in shape, and they did. They knew to have a good mental attitude and to give it all of their effort, and that's what they're doing. In the end, our goal is to be there again. That's our goal, and we won't change our mindset. We want to win the championship, period."